Stage Dad: Social Media, Scams & Safety
Some aspects of the business are dark and even dangerous; what should you know?
Note: The following essay includes topics that may be uncomfortable or distressing to some readers.
Nine years ago, I got a call from Ginno Murphy, Ben’s guardian on the “Billy Elliot” tour. “I just talked with someone at the FBI,” he said, shaken. “They were asking about…”
Before Ginno could finish his sentence, my heart sank.
A man in his mid 20s had connected with several of the child cast members on social media. We had seen him hanging out by the stage door in New York when Ben was in the “Billy Elliot” ensemble. He seemed polite and respectful, a superfan who was living a different life vicariously through the show he had seen tens if not hundreds of times.
In many respects, “Billy Elliot: The Musical” inspired that level of fandom in audiences. The story — of a sensitive adolescent dealing with his mother’s death, his father’s grief and job insecurity, his brother’s anger, and his grandmother’s dementia — was heartbreaking and resonant. That this boy, who was growing up in Thatcher’s oppressive England, loved dance and was accepting of the burgeoning homosexuality of his best friend Michael was a salve and a romanticized version of reality for many who flocked to the show and to the stage door after a performance.
As a parent, I had long been on high alert at the stage door every night, the possibility of adults taking advantage of children very much on my mind, even though I knew the chances of something like that happening were remote.
Over the 18 months that Ben was in the Broadway show and the 18 months that he was on tour, I got to know many “Billy Elliot” superfans. Some were like Trekkies or the people who dressed up for Comic Con; several became and have remained friends over social media because of what has proven to be a genuine interest in our son’s growth as an actor.
Initially, I thought the young man I met outside the stage door that night was like the others. But it didn’t take long to discover that he wasn’t.
The FBI call to Ginno brought things too close to home. Several weeks later, we learned the man had been arrested for soliciting nude photos from underage teens. He had apparently hacked another person’s profile and demanded nude photos in exchange for control of the Facebook account. Fortunately, he was caught and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
We were very lucky.
BizParents: Part 2
This installment of Stage Dad is the second part of my interview with Anne Henry and Paula Dorn of the BizParentz Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides resources, advocacy, and research for families, the public, and industry professionals about the safety, education, and rights of young performers.
The first installment examined topics covered in previous Stage Dad essays: Advice for parents with children who work in the entertainment industry; common questions they receive at BizParentz; and the need for professional representation. This part focuses on technology and social media, scams, and child safety.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Concerns about a child’s safety — physical, emotional, financial — play a huge role in the work you’ve done. As your work started and as it’s evolved, what have you learned about ways to help parents deal with these concerns?
Paula: If I just take this question at face value, one really significant thing we learned along the way is the reality of pedophilia in our industry. We had no idea of how ingrained and direct this issue is. We had a typical cursory parental knowledge of this subject. We spent months researching the topic and becoming aware of some bad actors very close to even us.
Speaking out and letting parents know what to be aware of, what was normal business behavior by adults, and what to do if they had concerns became overwhelmingly important. We presented the first and only meeting at SAG specific to this topic. There is extensive information and resources on our website.
Obviously, technology and social media have become omnipresent in kids’ lives over the past two decades. Facebook was booming when Ben started out, and he begged us for an account. We let him do it on the condition that we could monitor it, and every time he added a new friend I also sent that person a request so I could track them. Are those types of steps and parameters the right way to go?
Paula: I love Facebook but think much of social media is unnecessary and even dangerous for our kids. In part, it’s because of the pedophile issue, but also because the subtle messages social media sends to our kids about their place in the world. Losing track of reality comes with consequences later.
In our industry we previously had some gatekeepers who protected us and social media appears to take them away. It might be super beneficial if we could contain it within our industry, but it doesn’t work that way. The risks are much greater for our acting kids than the general public.
Always remember fan is short for fanatic. We want people to appreciate our children’s work on a project but having people following them when they’ve done nothing is creepy.
What are additional concerns you have about social media as it relates to child actors? How can parents do a better job of guiding their children?
Anne: Selena Gomez, who is the fifth most followed celebrity on Instagram, said a few weeks ago that she actually hadn't been on the Internet in more than four years! You know why? It wasn't good for her mental health. She had someone else posting on-brand messages, but her social media wasn't really her. There's a great lesson there for child actors, from a former child star who has been there, done that.
It feels like parents jump into social media for their kids to "get discovered," and they expose their children to danger by doing so. In reality, getting "discovered" isn't a thing. That isn't how the industry works at all.
Social media really is not necessary for a child performer, but if you do it, know your platform. TikTok is more than just dances. It is owned in China, is very risky and is home to many, many predators. If anything goes wrong there, you will have no legal recourse.
Most kids imagine they will be an influencer when they grow up. Your odds of monetizing your social media are really slim. Do the research on that return on investment before you commit a ton of time to it.
Also, your kids should never be managing their own profiles. Parents must manage them, both legally and morally, and that is a boatload of work. As you mentioned, it requires you to analyze every friend/follow, and that is exhausting. If you have that much time to dedicate to your child's career, it might be better used with other efforts, like finding great classes, looking for a licensed agent, and learning how to self-tape auditions.
If a parent decides to allow his/her/their child to take part in social media, what are best practices they should follow?
Anne: You should reserve their name and create a placeholder profile. Professional pics only. Choose an aesthetic that reflects your child's showbiz image and stick with a consistent color palette. Never mention where you actually live, what school you go to, where you play sports, etc.
Scams are everywhere, and everyone is trying to make a buck, some more honestly than others. As parents, our view was to sink our money into Ben’s training — singing, dancing, acting — and the tools (headshots, etc.) he needed and let the rest take care of itself. What do you think of that approach? Is that the way parents should go? Should parents ever pay money to go to one of those “kids’ talent scout seminars” whose ads can be found all over the radio?
Anne: Sounds like you took a great approach! It works because no matter whether your child ended up loving the industry or not, you would have invested in valuable skills they can use in life. Wise consumers should pay for real instruction, real goods.
Paula: Unfortunately scams are very prevalent in our industry. But a wise consumer can spot them and avoid them. The events you hear advertised to give your child a chance to get an agent are absolutely worthless, a rip-off, and some would even say a scam.
Anne: The "auditions" you hear about on the radio or on social media, the talent scouting seminars, "branding" instruction, showcases and conventions — NEVER. Those companies are out there taking advantage of parents who love their kids, but don't know how the real industry works. They have no relation to actual studios, and precious few talent agents or casting directors ever show up to those things. Those things make me crazy because they really are exploiting a parent's love and support for their child.
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